Reading Period: August 12 - October 10
1. The Power Law (P), by Sebastian Mallaby
I'm extremely impressed with how great of a writer Sebastian is. This book chronicles the history of venture capital, and somehow it ended up being just as fascinating as More Money Than God. Some venture capitalists, such as Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, are power players. Son once walked into Yahoo's office pre-IPO and demanded that Yahoo let him invest $100 million in exchange for 40% of the company. When Yahoo refused, he asked them to write down the name of their largest competitors. Then Son said, essentially, "if you don't let me invest in you, I'll invest $100 million in one of your largest competitors, and I'll kill you." After some frantic deliberation, Yahoo had no choice but to agree. Most of the business stories in the book are relentlessly informative and entertaining. I'd say this is probably the best business history book I've read, and I really hope Sebastian writes more.
Entrepreneurship is extremely difficult. 75% of venture-backed entrepreneurs leave their failed business with no money to show for it. Most startups fail, and many fail fast. Venture capital capitalizes on the power law, the idea that "the rewards for success will be massively greater than the costs of honorable setbacks." It takes only one investment in Google or Facebook to generate 95% of the returns for a venture portfolio, so the purpose of a good VC is to scout out potential diamonds in the rough, and possibly guide these diamonds towards greatness. Belief in wacky, off-the-reservation founders is usually required, as "there is no glory in projects that will probably succeed, for these by definition won't transform the human predicament."
There is a ton of discussion about how venture capital success is generally path dependent, and reputational effects and lucky network connections are generally what has led to success in the Valley. Still, Sebastian defends venture capital and backs up the fact that "luck favors the prepared mind." I'm far removed enough from the space that I don't have enough data to dispute the luck vs skill claims made in the book, but I do have to say I wholeheartedly agree with the quote: "Blitzscaling isn't really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy." Overall I really have nothing negative to say about the book. Please Sebastian, keep writing!
2. Poor Economics (A), by Abhijit Banerjee
This audiobook was pretty hard to get through, even though the subject matter should be right up my alley. It was unfortunately pretty boring and longwinded, and this does seem to be a case of interesting and novel data with a very lackluster presentation. It was interesting to hear that if you give money to the world's poorest people, who have a calorie deficient and are undergoing signs of starvation, they choose to buy better tasting food instead of more food. Also, the economics of malaria nets was interesting to learn about (does making people pay for nets incentivize them to use them more than if you give them out for free?). Still, I feel like this would have been a better book if written by most other nonfiction authors.
3. Why We Sleep (A), by Matthew Walker
This wasn't even informative, it was just a soap box for Matthew to pontificate on his superiority. Pretty terrible book. The audiobook literally would put me to sleep and it was three hundred pages too long. Most paragraphs went like this: "jocks in college would tell me that they don't sleep a lot. I would counter back 'well actually... sleeping less gives you a smaller testosterone count than if you sleep more, so you have less testosterone than me. Checkmate jocks.'" I find it baffling that Matthew has so many of these put-downs in his book, it's so childish and I wonder if he just invents these interactions in his head. Yes, I am motivated to sleep more as a result of Matthew's fear-mongering. For that I will give the book props. But still, I wouldn't recommend this book simply because of the author's narcissism.
4. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (A), by John Mark Comer
I am at a busy enough point in my life where it seems audiobooks are my only option. Funny enough, I listened to this one at 1.5x speed. John's main thesis here is essentially what the title says: destroying your desire to hurry through everything is vital to spiritual growth and success. There were a ton of religious ties to this book, as John is a megachurch pastor (but a cool one), but the basic arguments for digital minimalism and anti-consumerism are still very valid. John definitely cherry picks anecdotes and this is far from a scientific thesis, but it was still an enjoyable read.
5. The 48 Laws of Power (A), by Robert Greene
The biggest problem with this book is not that it is immoral, but rather that it is essentially useless. Slogging through a twenty-four hour audiobook on how to get ahead through scheming and manipulation should at least have some payoff. Unfortunately, the evidence backing up Robert's claims is completely cherry-picked, anecdotal rubbish. Most of the stories are actually interesting, and reading about con-artists or backstabbing Roman senators made the book somewhat bearable. But trying to read into any lessons from these anecdotes is probably less useful and more harmful to your life than reading your daily horoscope. Each "law" of power is cushioned by various warnings and "reversals" of the law, to a point where it seems entirely subjective when you should choose one path versus another. This not only makes the book useless as a tool that you can use to gain power, it also means that you don't get insight into powerful people and their strategies, which is why I read the book in the first place.
For some reason, this book takes itself seriously. This is incredibly moronic, as anyone with an intelligence of a monkey will cringe at various points in the book. Robert claims that martyrdom can be a good strategy to gain power, but that usually you should avoid death and find someone else to take the fall for you. What? What is the point of any of this? What is the point of being a "martyr", given that you die and lose your influence? The mistress who gains status by bedding the king gains status, that is true. But then she dies. What was the point? Pretty much every person used as a role model in this book is an incredibly horrible person. Robert used enough examples of Mao and Genghis Khan that I swear he should have just rounded it out with Hitler at the end. Most of these "powerful" people were incredibly lucky, and most were incredibly stupid. The stories that show this aren't mentioned in the book. Honestly, if you meet someone who takes this book as gospel, you should probably lock them in a cage. I've met one, and it was a very cringeworthy experience. One last point. The world would have been better off without 99% of the people mentioned in this book. Take that into consideration before following their example.
6. Book Lovers (P), by Emily Henry
Emily is a really good writer, but unfortunately I could not get into this book. Despite reading her other books in the span of days, this one I slogged through over months. I don't think her characters are relatable or even likeable, and if loving New York is a personality, I hate it. Definitely a pretty weak showing all around. One quote I need to mention is: "Tala regaled us with a tale that is either the nonsense ramblings of a toddler or a faithful retelling of a Kafka novel." This confused me, since aren't these the same thing?
Another notable quote:
"Of course you don't have a life. None of us do. There's always something too good to read"
7. Steppenwolf (A), by Herman Hesse
What a god-damn trip this book was. Crazy stuff, probably what tripping on acid feels like, but in like a cool, literary sense. Herman has such incredible prose and his storytelling is wildly compelling, despite really none of it making any sense. This was an audiobook for me, which as usual I regret if the book is good and appreciate if the book is bad. Unfortunately, this was really good. Not to Siddhartha levels or anything, but I'm glad to have had the experience.
8. The Richest Man in Babylon (A), by George Clason
Pretty short audiobook, but not really that informative. Personal finance isn't very complicated, and this book spends quite a bit of narrative time explaining very simple rules (save 10% of your income, don't go into debt that you can't manage). I didn't really like the storytelling aspect and slavery references, pretty outdated altogether.
9. The Prophet (P), by Kahil Gibran
A short poetry collection that is totally worth the read. Beautiful prose, interesting reflections, and very short. I highlighted much of this book, and below are my favorite quotes.
"You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give."
"And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the over-prudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?"
"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
"For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."
10. Apocalypse Never (P), by Michael Schellenberger
Again, it is surely confirmation bias that leads me to enjoy Michael's books so much. I agree with pretty much every main idea Michael presents, and I like that he calls out the rampant hypocrisy of the traditional environmentalist. This book isn't particularly well written, but its content is very engaging. Michael picks some stupid far-reaching environmental empty gesture, such as banning straws, and provides data that shows that the rational intuition is correct. "When you consider that just 0.03 percent of the nine million tons of plastic waste that ends up in oceans every year is composed of straws, banning them seems like a profoundly small thing." Vegetarianism takes a similar hit: "if every American became vegetarian, U.S. emissions would drop by just 5 percent." This book fits in very well with the effective altruism books I read earlier in the year. The takeaway of this book is something exceedingly obvious: nuclear energy is the key to combating climate change. It is safe, carbon neutral, and ridiculously efficient. "Had Germany invested $580 billion into new nuclear power plants instead of renewables like solar and wind farms, it would be generating 100 percent of its electricity from zero-emission sources and have sufficient zero-carbon electricity to power all of its cars and light trucks, as well." I've always been infuriated by environmentalists who advocate against nuclear power. As Michael says, these people claim climate change is apocalyptic and then turn around and rule out the most obvious way of combating it.
The opening of this book is spent disproving the idea that climate change will "kill us all." This seems to be a major claim of half of the political landscape. Michael points out how harmful this nonsense is, and he claims that this "fear-mongering" makes data-backed environmental advocacy much harder. This book made me hate the Sierra Club. Their campaign against nuclear power has lead to the perpetuation of fossil fuels on a scale envied by the greatest climate-deniers. Air pollution caused by coal power has shortened millions of lives, solar panels produce tremendous waste and are rarely recycled (cheaper to just make new ones), and wind turbines apparently kill a ton of birds and bats. Ok, I don't really care about birds, or bats, but Michael is pretty pissed. "If the United States were to try to generate all of the energy it uses with renewables, 25 to 50 percent of all land in the United States would be required. By contrast, today's energy system requires just 0.5% of land in the United States." I'm not totally I sure I agree with all of Michael's claims. He claims that economic progress should be our main goal (even if in the short run it hurts the environment), and he discounts vegetarianism pretty easily. Still, I think he is spot on to point out the conflicts of interest at work in the current energy landscape.
Out of everything in this book, the most compelling take is that the key problem with the current climate discussion is the romantic "appeal-to-nature" fallacy. People assume that because renewables sound more natural and less "scary" than uranium, they should be used to replace our current infrastructure. We need to look no farther than the mentally deficient German political class to see how this works in practice.